16 points to ponder as 16 drivers set to race for Cup crown

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The quest to be NASCAR’s best begins for 16 drivers, as they embark on 10-track, nine-state, three time-zone quest that will take them from Las Vegas to Dover to Phoenix and Miami (and points in between).

With Jimmie Johnson failing to qualify, there is no playoff driver with more than one Cup title. Ten playoff drivers, including Denny Hamlin, seek their first Cup championship. One, William Byron, is making his first playoff appearance.

TV: NASCAR America presents coverage of Playoff Media Day at 6 p.m. ET Thursday

TV: NASCAR America Burnout Boulevard Driven by Goodyear airs at 7 p.m. ET Thursday

The next two months are likely to feature frayed nerves, epic celebrations and tight racing. Who will have the honor of being called NASCAR champion in Miami?

We’re about to find out. The journey begins Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Until then, here are 16 things to ponder about this playoff field:

Crew chief Chad Knaus and William Byron. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

1. Still Perfect: While Jimmie Johnson will miss the playoffs for the first time in his career, crew chief Chad Knaus will continue his streak of taking part in every playoff season.

This will be Knaus’ 16th consecutive year in the playoffs. The first 15 were with Johnson. This year, Knaus is with William Byron, who is making his first playoff appearance.

Only one other crew chief has been in more than 10 consecutive playoffs. Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, will be making his 12th consecutive appearance in the playoffs.

2. Streaking: While Johnson’s streak is over, Kyle Busch has an impressive streak going. He has made it to the championship race in Miami each of the past four years. Busch won the title in 2015, finished third in 2016, placed second in 2017 and was fourth last year.

3. Most to prove in the playoffs: Chevrolet. The manufacturer has not had a car make it to the championship race since 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won the last of his seven championships. Chevrolet has five cars in the playoffs this year (Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch) and failing to make the championship race a third year in a row would only add to Chevy’s embarrassment.

4. Members only: Six of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have won a Cup title: Kurt Busch (2004), Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018).

5. So long ago: Kurt Busch is seeking to set a record for the longest gap between championships. He won his lone Cup crown in 2004. The record is 12 years between titles. Terry Labonte won his first crown in 1984 and his second title in 1996.

Kyle Busch (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

6. Most pit road speeding penalties in regular season: No, it’s not Denny Hamlin. It’s his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who has five.

Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are next with three pit road speeding penalties each.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each had no pit road speeding penalties in the first 26 races of the season.

7. Most playoff wins (by current title contender): 13 by Kevin Harvick (Jimmie Johnson has 29 wins in the playoffs is not in the playoffs this year).

8. Most consecutive playoff appearances — Kevin Harvick is making his 10th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active streak.

Kyle Larson  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Familiar refrain: Kyle Larson enters the playoffs winless in his last 72 points races (he did win the non-points All-Star Race in May). During that winless streak, Larson has finished second nine times (12.5% of the time). Since his last win at Richmond in September 2017, here are the races Larson has finished second and who he finished behind:

Sept 24, 2017 — New Hampshire (Kyle Busch won)

March 18, 2018 — Auto Club (Martin Truex Jr. won)

April 15, 2018 — Bristol (Kyle Busch won)

June 3, 2018 — Pocono (Martin Truex Jr. won)

July 1, 2018 — Chicago (Kyle Busch won)

Aug. 18, 2018 — Bristol (Kurt Busch won)

Sept. 16, 2018 — Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski)

June 30, 2019 — Chicago (Alex Bowman won)

10. Bet on 1 at Las Vegas: Vegas native Kurt Busch has the best average finish among the playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch, who won at Kentucky in July, has an average finish of 9.29 at 1.5-mile tracks.

Joey Logano, who won at Las Vegas in March, is next with an average finish of 9.71 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. Ryan Blaney has the worst average finish among playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this year at 20.71.

11. Then again, maybe you should play the 2 and 22 at Vegas: Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s playoff opener at Las Vegas, has eight consecutive top-10 finishes there. Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has seven consecutive top 10s there.

Chase Elliott (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

12. Most Popular Champion: Reigning most popular driver Chase Elliott might be overlooked by some but consider this: On the eight playoff tracks that have hosted a Cup race this season, Elliott scored the most points (324) among the playoff drivers.

Joey Logano is next at 301 points and then comes Kevin Harvick at 292 points. Ryan Newman ranks last with 184 points.

13. No pay, no play(offs): Only one of the last 31 playoff races has been won by a non-playoff driver.

14. Miles to be run in the 10 playoff races: 3,726.1

15. Miles if one were to drive from track to track for each of the 10 playoff races: 10,362. For perspective, Beijing is 7,126 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, the sport’s hub … Auckland, New Zealand is 8,324 miles from Charlotte … Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, is 6,879 miles from Charlotte.

16. Left out: Kyle Busch is on a 12-race winless streak, his longest drought since 2017-18. All three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won since Busch’s last victory: Martin Truex Jr. (Sonoma), Denny Hamlin (Pocono, Bristol) and Erik Jones (Darlington).

Playoff schedule

Sept. 15 – Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 21 – Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 29 – Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 6 – Dover (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Oct. 13 – Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 20 – Kansas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 27 – Martinsville (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 3 – Texas (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 10 – Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Nov. 17 – Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC)

Driver points standings entering the playoffs

2045 – Kyle Busch

2030 – Denny Hamlin

2029 – Martin Truex Jr.

2028 – Kevin Harvick

2028 – Joey Logano

2024 – Brad Keselowski

2018 – Chase Elliott

2011 – Kurt Busch

2005 – Alex Bowman

2005 – Erik Jones

2005 – Kyle Larson

2004 – Ryan Blaney

2001 – William Byron

2001 – Aric Almirola

2000 – Clint Bowyer

2000 – Ryan Newman

 

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.

Daytona road course entry lists

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NASCAR’s national series will make their debuts on the Daytona road course this weekend. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck events will be held without any practice or qualifying.

NASCAR is prohibiting drivers from competing in more than one series this weekend on the Daytona road course in an effort to get extra track time. NASCAR states that is to make the event fair for everyone.

Sunday’s Cup race will be broadcast on NBC.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the races at the Daytona road course 

Cup – Go Bowling 235 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine drivers are entered for the race at the Daytona road course.

JJ Yeley is in the No. 27 for Rick Ware Racing.

Joey Gase is in the No. 51 for Petty Ware Racing.

Gray Gaulding is in the No. 53 for Rick Ware Racing.

Brendan Gaughan is in the No. 62 for Beard Motorsports.

Timmy Hill is in the No. 66 for Motorsports Business Management.

Reed Sorenson is in the No. 77 for Spire Motorsports.

Click here for Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – UNOH 188 (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Andy Lally is back in the No. 02 Our Motorsports car after finishing fifth last week at Road America.

AJ Allmendinger, who finished second last week at Road America, is in the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing.

IMSA driver Earl Bamber will make his Xfinity debut this weekend in the No. 21 for Richard Childress Racing.

Brandon Gdovic will make his second start of the season, driving the No. 26 for Sam Hunt Racing.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

 

Truck – Sunoco 159 (Noon ET Sunday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered in the race that will be held before the Cup event on Sunday on the Daytona road course.

Alex Tagliani will drive the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Click here for Truck entry list

Silly Season Scorecard: Christopher Bell moves back to JGR

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No surprise that Christopher Bell moves over to the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing next season with Leavine Family Racing being sold and Erik Jones not remaining with JGR beyond this season. Joe Gibbs Racing made the announcement Monday.

While JGR lets the 24-year-old Jones, who has 133 Cup starts go, it brings in the 25-year-old Bell who has made 22 career Cup starts. Jones said before Sunday’s race he was “blindsided a little bit” by JGR’s move.

It’s part of the building momentum of Silly Season. In the last week, Team Penske signed Brad Keselowski to a reported one-year extension and Bubba Wallace said he has an offer for next year not only from Richard Petty Motorsports but also Chip Ganassi Racing.

Here’s how the Cup Silly Season scorecard looks as of Aug. 10.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said in a press conference Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through at least 2021.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 10: Aric Almirola is in a contract year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon is in a contract year at Germain Racing.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto is in a contract year at Wood Brothers Racing. He said after the Aug. 9 Michigan race: “I haven’t really talked about that stuff for next year yet, but we’ve just been so focused and head down on digging and trying to make the playoffs and run well. We haven’t even really talked about it, so, hopefully, I stay here for a very long time to come and that’s what they had expressed to me when I came over here.”

No. 32: Corey LaJoie is in a contract year at Go Fas Racing.

No. 42: Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports on Aug. 8 in regards to talks with Chip Ganassi Racing for next year: “We really haven’t had any very meaningful discussions really about any of that to be honest with you.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace said Aug. 9 he has an offer from Richard Petty Motorsports and an offer from Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 car next season.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Leavine Family Racing announced it was selling its assets earlier this week. The buyer has not been announced. Christopher Bell will move to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team for 2021.